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Oduoza: Avoid shortcuts, don’t jump leadership ladder

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Phillips Oduoza, Chairman, NOVA Merchant Bank Limited

Phillips Oduoza, former Group Managing Director, United Bank for Africa, and current Chairman, NOVA Merchant Bank, was one of the prominent Africans that were recognised and honoured at the 2018 edition of the Annual Zik Leadership Award. He won the 2018 Zik Prize in Professional Leadership. In this interview with Oladoyin Kazeem and Emmanuel Sila, he talked about the significance of the award, his banking career, the economy and leadership.

Significance of the Award
The award came as a surprise. The organisers linked my selection to NOVA Merchant Bank’s success within a short period of time and partly to my successful tenure as CEO of UBA. More so, they were impressed that I continued to contribute to the banking industry after retirement from UBA with a view to leaving a legacy, assisting and mentoring the younger generation.This was clearly demonstrated in the creation of NOVA Merchant Bank, which was licensed in a short period and broke-even in the first year of operations.

Meanwhile, at the time of commencement of operations by NOVA, the economic environment was quite challenging, because the country just exited from recession. Secondly, there was still turbulence in the industry resulting from interventions in some banks by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

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However, NOVA was able to withstand these shocks and by the second year, NOVA was rated by two major rating agencies, viz, Global Credit Rating (GCR) and Augusto & Co as investment grade – a remarkable achievement. As such, the organizers of the award felt that the bank and its promoter deserve recognition.

Given the profile of past recipients and background of the organisers of the award, I am proud of the Leadership Award.
Generally, when an individual achieves a major milestone or makes exceptional contribution in his profession, a recognition of this nature is quite befitting.

The nexus between professional leadership skills and success
My background was not banking. I studied engineering but never practised the profession. Immediately after my national youth service, I enrolled for an MBA and thereafter went into banking. Fortunately, I have a wonderful background in terms of training and wider knowledge in banking, which cuts across systems technology, ICT, finance, marketing, operations, treasury, credit etc.

After twenty-four months of on the job training, I was made a supervisor with people reporting to me – a very big responsibility. That was when my managerial skill started developing. It was a challenge, but gradually, I became better and learnt a lot because I had good and experienced supervisors to learn from.

Thereafter, I became one of the few people that started Diamond Bank. I was given a very large responsibility as first Head, Domestic Operations, involving every aspect of service delivery and processing. Soon, my responsibility was expanded to cover domestic and international operations as the Head of Bankwide Operations with many direct reports. By then, I had started sharpening my leadership capabilities by attending numerous courses on managerial and leadership skills in some of the key training centres in the world.

I rose to the position of an Executive Director before joining Standard Trust Bank, which subsequently merged with UBA, where I became a Deputy Managing Director. Leadership played a major role in my career till date, I am still learning – attending leadership programmes as part of continuous self development.

Preparation for Challenges
Personal background plays a major role in future success. There are certain character traits people acquire while growing up. As a child, one probably might not know how valuable those attributes are. But, the moment they are acquired, they stick.
My parents were very strict disciplinarians who had an imaginary boundary drawn and you are not expected to cross to the wrong side. There were positive attributes associated with the right side of the boundary such as contentment, respect and hard work.
I also believe there is no shortcut and one should not jump a step in the ladder. All through my career development in the banking industry, I did not jump any grade level. A lot of knowledge and experience are lost when one adopts a shortcut, which creates gaps in the quality of leadership.

I learnt a lot from so many people, including my former boss, Mr. Tony Elumelu who was then the MD/CEO at UBA and I worked closely with him as a Deputy Managing Director. When I succeeded him, I did not struggle but continued along those lines. Today, I am chairman of a bank which is a logical progression from the MD/CEO position.

Mentors
I have mentors. Whatever I am doing, there is a particular person I seek advice from. When I was considering NOVA, I contacted him. When I was appointed CEO of UBA, he acted as a guide.He guides me, especially when I am making critical career decisions. For example, when some people approached me to contest for a gubernatorial position, he told me that being a governor of a state means serving people. This is equivalent to the industry where I operate, and I am already serving people. Therefore, the role of a mentor is very important.

The UBA experience
I learnt many things at UBA, particularly the area of critical leadership. One needs to persevere because pressure from the society can easily derail you. When I was in UBA, we were investing in other African countries and a lot of people did not understand the reason. We were criticized by some people for making the huge investments outside Nigeria.

However, the Bank continued with the investment because it was part of the larger strategy of diversification. There is a time for sowing and a time for reaping. Thankfully, today, the subsidiaries across Africa are contributing about 45% to the bank’s total performance.

UBA is a very large platform and once a decision is taken, the bank quickly moves into execution mode. This is because all lofty ideas, knowledge, theories, and strategies when not executed, will amount to nothing.In 2005, the Standard Trust and UBA corporate merger was the largest in Nigerian history. During the transition stage, we worked with international firms and consultants from South Africa, Brazil, United Kingdom, and Mexico. They were experts with experience in Emerging / Frontier Markets, similar to Nigerian market. They advised on the pace of integration with respect to technology, people, culture, and processes, to avoid losing the merger benefits. Initially, it looked impossible, but people worked day and night, and in a very short time, the target was achieved. The bank was very strong in execution and this was driven by leadership.

The NOVA dream
That same mindset midwifed NOVA. Things are done very rapidly and everyone is excited over the milestone achievements since inception. Generally, we have to execute our plans in a very ruthless manner. Therefore, people work very hard and smart. I commend the NOVA team because they are so passionate about the goals and corporate vision and this makes it a lot easier for them to execute and deliver.

We have launched our core banking application called INTELLECT – the first of its kind in Nigeria. It is not the usual legacy banking application, but a fully digital platform this is more aligned to technology trends such as artificial intelligence, block chain technologies etc.

Sustaining success and maintaining family
I am very lucky to have a wonderful wife and understanding children – two equally hard-working boys. It was not easy juggling a busy career with family. Hence, any slightest opportunity, I spend with the family. I commend my wife, who has been holding the home-front, especially during my days as CEO of UBA and early days of NOVA. Generally, I spend time playing golf as a way of distressing and networking.

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The CBN Governor’s warning on tough times ahead
Although, I am not the CBN governor, I think his pronouncement was a wake-up call. That is, we should not relax or feel comfortable because the economy still remains fragile. We need to continue our quest towards diversification of the economy and avoid going back to the old ways, like importing items that are produced locally. Currently, the quality may be low, but if we continue along this trajectory, slowly there will be significant improvement. Therefore, Nigerians should not return to the era of consuming virtually all imported items.

Technically, we are out of recession because our GDP is no longer declining quarter on quarter like we experienced between 2015 and part of 2017. In 2018, we grew by about 2%, if we continue diversifying without full dependence on oil, things will turn around. With inflation coming down, there will be real growth.

Similarly, it is imperative we continue with stable policies. The CBN has done well managing the exchange rate. In 2016, it was N525 to a dollar. Somehow, it has come down to N360 – this is unprecedented. In the past, whenever the exchange rate went up, it was extremely difficult to bring it down therefore; a new benchmark is established at the high point.

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